By Vanessa Bauzá and David Cázares | Sun Sentinel
In humble Havana homes the wives, mothers, sons and daughters of 75 jailed dissidents gathered on Thursday to quietly mark the first anniversary of an unprecedented crackdown that crushed Cuba’s opposition movement.
Across the Florida Straits, at downtown Miami’s Bayfront Park, more than 100 Cuban-Americans also paid tribute to the political prisoners with a solemn ceremony, reading each name out loud and posting photos on a mural.
The gatherings were a symbol of unity for a transnational Cuban community often divided by passionate politics and conflicting pasts. On Thursday, however, divisions were set aside in favor of the common cause of freedom for the political prisoners.
“It’s a day of solidarity, a day to honor and recognize the dissidents, and to tell the world that we Cubans are united,” said Ondine Menocal, a member of a Catholic organization for Cuban exiles. She had walked up to a lectern in Miami to honor Antonio Diaz Sanchez, a Havana dissident she has never met who was sentenced to 20 years.
To the left of the lectern stood a mock jail cell containing examples of some of the items Cuban authorities confiscated from the 75 dissidents, independent journalists, economists and rights activists they arrested: a manual typewriter, a short wave radio and seven unused yellow envelopes. A Cuban flag hung behind the cell.
Miriam de la Peña, 54, a Miami homemaker, came to represent Ricardo Enrique Silva Gual, a member of the Christian Liberation Movement who was sentenced to 10 years. Just 30 years old, Silva’s young face reminded de la Peña of the son she lost eight years ago when Cuban fighter jets shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes. Mario de la Peña was 24 when he died.
“This touches me because these are young people who long for freedom,” de la Peña said at Bayfront Park. “They have been imprisoned unjustly. They have done nothing wrong. They are only asking for rights we take for granted.”
The Cuban government has said the dissidents received money from U.S. diplomats to subvert the island’s socialist system. Although arrests and detentions had periodically taken place, longtime activists say the size and scope of the crackdown last March—and the severity of sentences that average 19 years—was unheard of in Cuba.
At about the same time the Miami ceremony was taking place in the hot noon sun at the Torch of Friendship, a dozen dissidents’ wives were gathered at a small home in the working class neighborhood of Central Havana.
Many women wore white T-shirts printed with photos of their loved ones. They held a 12-hour liquid fast and said the political prisoners were doing the same in their jail cells.
A large black, white and red banner hung on the living room wall and bore the prisoners’ names and photos.
“We are all united in the same pain,” said Dolia Leal, wife of Nelson Aguiar Ramirez, who was sentenced to 13 years and is currently hospitalized for high blood pressure. “It’s a horrible crime they [the Cuban authorities] have committed, jailing 75 people for their ideas. These are people who were nonviolent, who had only books and old typewriters in their homes.”
More than a dozen of the 75 prisoners are currently hospitalized. Many are in their 50’s and 60’s and have chronic illnesses that have worsened under the tension and harsh conditions of the past year.
“Each day their health gets worse,” Leal said. “Personally I am afraid they will die in prison before freedom comes.”
Elsa Morejon, wife of Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, a rights activist who was sentenced to 25 years, was host of a small news conference at her Havana home Thursday morning with about a half-dozen other women.
“I want to send a clear message to the Cuban government not to further lengthen the suffering of these Cuban families,” Morejon said.
During the press conference, the wives made a special plea to the international diplomats currently gathered in Geneva for the United Nations Human Rights Commission. The commission votes annually on human rights offenses around the world and Cuba’s record is generally a hotly debated topic. The commission has voted to censure Cuba almost every year for the past decade, but the vote is generally very close.
“Those who vote for Cuba are voting for the government. They are not voting for the people,” said Alejandrina Garcia de la Rivas, wife of rights activist Diosdado Gonzalez Marrero, who is serving 20 years in a Pinar del Rio prison. “We are living in a country that represses us constantly. We are not mercenaries, our husbands are not mercenaries.”
Speaking in Geneva on Wednesday, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque defended the dissidents’ arrests and sentences.
“Cuba claims its right to apply its laws in order to defend itself from acts of aggression,” Perez Roque said. “Cuba claims its right to prosecute mercenaries that contribute to the blockade and the aggressive policy of the superpower that is attempting to re-conquer and subjugate its people.”
This week, international human rights groups, including Amnesty International, reiterated their call for the Cuban government to release the 75 prisoners.
“After a detailed review of the legal cases against them, it is clear that they are prisoners of conscience detained for the peaceful expression of their beliefs,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called the dissidents’ one day trials last April a “travesty of justice” and said the U.N. Human Rights Commission offers an opportunity for the global community to “join in condemnation of the Castro regime’s abuses.”
Maya Bell of the Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.